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The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was a nationalistic-secular ideological organization established in 1976. It existed until its final fall in May 2009. The organization demanded independence and the establishment of a Tamil state in north and north-east Sri Lanka, in light of the discrimination and official exclusion of the Tamil minority (the tigers) by the Buddhist Sinhali majority (the lions).

Tamil Tigers Female Division parade in 2002. Photo: Marietta Amarcord (Wikimedia Commons)
Tamil Tigers Female Division parade in 2002. Photo: Marietta Amarcord (Wikimedia Commons)

At first the Tamil Tigers were a terrorist organization operating in small teams, but they gradually adopted a more traditional military organization of platoons and divisions. At the height of their power they controlled a 15,000 sq. km. area, and numbered between 30,000 and 35,000 fighting men and women. The Tamil Tigers are the only ones who successfully assassinated two leaders: Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lanka President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, in addition to many more politicians, military officers, top academy figures and intellectuals.

The government operation against them took place between January and May 2009. The city of Kilinochchi, effectively their capital, was lost. During the months of withdrawal the Tamil Tigers used 300,000 citizens as human shields while thousands of trapped civilians were murdered. As for the government, despite heavy pressure by western states and human rights organization which led to the formation of civilian shelter areas, the government bombard these areas as well – as long as Tamil Tigers were killed. Fighting ended on May 16th, when the army took over the last strongholds. The war against the Tamil Tigers was over.

The president’s decision to utilize the same methods as the Tigers was his most significant decision in this context. The decision is a response to several events: First, as the terror body count rose the legitimacy of his rule was damaged. Second, various governments tried to negotiate, but all these negotiations failed. Third, frequent terror attacks heavily damaged the economy and tourism. Fourth, the organization kept growing more and more sophisticated, and the government feared a scenario in which the Tigers will acquire advanced military capabilities. Fifth, Sri Lanka is a social-democratic democracy. Its regime can use methods that are effectively forbidden in other liberal-democracies. The Sri-Lanka ambassador to Israel, Donald Ferrera, claimed that “when the government realized that terrorists are destroying the country and when people leave their home they have no idea if they’ll make it back alive, the president decided to destroy the Tamil Tigers by any means necessary and end the terrorist threat.”

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The Tigers posed a very severe threat to the authority of the government and were a real threat to the army. In addition to political divisions they had several military ones: Naval and aerial divisions (Sea Tigers, Air Tigers), female division (Birds of Freedom), a division comprised only of young male orphans (Baby Division) and a cyber division (The Black Tigers of the Internet). The elite forces of the Tamil Tigers were called the Black Tigers, mainly focusing on suicide bombings.

On the other hand, censoring media, disregarding the U.N. And human rights organizations, and isolation and psychological warfare were only some of the methods used by the government. Between 1983 and 2009 tens of thousands of citizens lost their lives and hundreds of thousands became refugees. The government never apologized for the war against the Tamil Tigers, and even claimed that it can teach the west can how to destroy terrorist organizatons.

So why are the Tamil Tigers considered the “bad guys” and Sri Lanka the “good guys”, when both sides used violence, against civilians, to promote political agendas – terror, in fact? The answer may be found in the perception according to which terror depends on two variables: Motivation and capability. This means that in order to fight terror you have to damage these two variables alone. But while the Tamil Tigers had the motivation and capabilities, they lacked the third variable: Legitimacy. Unlike the Tigers the government presented a united front across all its levels, leveraged the negotiation failures as an excuse, and conducted an aggressive international campaign. By 2007 the Tamil Tigers were officially recognized as a terrorist organization by 32 counties. The legitimacy of the government the reason Sri Lanka isn’t considered a terrorist state despite heavy pressure by the U.N. and human rights organizations.

Either way, four years after the fall of the Tamil Tigers, the president and his government must do more in order to maintain the stability of his state: They have to acknowledge the Tamils’ basic demands, address political discrimination and lack of security by integrating them into society as truly equal citizens. As for the Tamil Tigers, 30 years of bloody war, tens of thousands of bodies, refugees and homeless, all for nothing. There’s still no independent Tamil state.

By Shlomi Yass, MA in Government, Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security and Interim at the Military and Strategic Affairs Program, INSS